I’ve always thought that what makes someone good at what they do is the level of experience that they bring to the table. I don’t just mean work experience, although that's obviously important, I mean life experience. I truly believe that the more you live, the more you do, the more you struggle at times, then the more you understand.
Years ago, in my early days of studying to be a behaviorist, I was working for the first time with a "positive" dog trainer on my own dog Nelson and watched him helicopter my dog on a very tight martingale collar right in front of me. When I screamed at him to stop because Nelson's eyes were bulging, he told me to butt out basically, and told me it was incredibly funny to him that I was studying to be a behaviorist when my dog was so incredibly badly behaved.
As you all know by now, it's BECAUSE Nelson was such a torment to me, that I decided to go down this road of enlightenment, and in all honesty, along the way, there have been many lows that have challenged me, made me doubt what I’m doing. Now, older and wiser, I realise that those very challenges are the things all dog owners go through and this brings me to a greater degree of understanding for their plight. I know many many dog trainers, (even though I am not one, I need to work with many for my job from time to time), and I’m always impressed with the ones who have taken on a diabolical little hellion of a chihuahua who wants to eat someone's face off, or some abused pitt bull, or a separation anxiety ridden great dane and adopted them into their family. Not only does it show me their heart for rescue, but it also tells me that these people are up for a challenge and aren’t scared of getting their hands dirty.
We learn more from our mistakes than we do our successes; our mistakes, our failures, when the outcome is vital to us, spur us on to make that final tweak that will make it work…that process, whatever our profession, is what makes us experts. It’s about walking a mile or two in those shoes. I do about four behavioural consults a week, and this weekend I am going out to see a couple whose five dogs are no longer getting along. There have been bites to both humans and canine family members, destructive behaviors, separation anxiety -- all manner of goodies.
I turn down lots of requests for consultations because sometimes I think someone else might be better suited to do it than I, or for reasons of time or geography, but I never turn one down, if I can help it, in a case like this. You see, I’ve been there. I have had dogs in my home that don’t get along, partly at times because of my own stupidity and a couple of times because, with teenage hormones and female menopause combined, it was a combustible atmosphere. I didn’t maybe realise HOW big of a deal, and just how tangible a thing energy was in a home, until I went through this myself.
I tell you, I learned more as a dog behaviorist when my son broke his back and came home from the hospital than at any other time in my professional life. Joe had been involved in an appalling car accident where the car was rammed into a tree at 95 miles an hour, caught fire, and the local sheriff, who was following the drunken teen driver of the car he was in, had to pull Joe out of the car before it exploded. Joe suffered from post traumatic stress disorder after this, as you might expect, and it tore him apart. I deal with many military families who are going through this and everyone says the same -- it's pure hell, on the victim and their family. I wouldn’t wish it on a rat.
My family was in turmoil and I watched as my dogs took on every ounce of negative energy like sponges, watched them try to expel it as we exercised them, played with them, distracted them, but my own anguish was so palpable that they were constantly confronted with my weakness, and thus, they felt a need to try to take charge when I could not, to be the leaders where I could not be.
Well, when you have two strong males in a household, one old and wise, one young and fast, there will be competition, and that's what set Nelson and Freddie off every time. Both of them male weimaraners with all of the angst that sometimes goes with that breed. Nelson at the time was 7 and Freddie was newly matured at 2. Freddie entered our home at 10 months of age as my first foster/residential rehab case due to aggression issues and ended up turning out so beautifully that he stayed. The two dogs had at first gotten along well until Freddie reached maturity and then of course things changed somewhat.
Joe’s accident just elucidated what was already there but which I had been subconsciously keeping a lid on. I tried every trick in the books on my shelves, nothing worked -- diet, exercise, supplements, Prozac (yes, I went there too, for the first time with a dog ever, and it didn’t work which is why I now counsel against it in all but one scenario). You name it, I tried it. I just wanted calm at any cost, any way I could get it. I then realised that I was so far in the grip of this heap of crap that I was incapable of making a coherent decision so I decided to get a second opinion. I hired a local trainer, who unfortunately failed to grasp the problem or to give me effective solutions, and actually sat rooted to the spot in fear when the two dogs got into a fight during her visit. Thankfully, my 14 year old son Jake pulled them apart.
In despair, after a short while of trying her suggestions, I had consults with other behaviorists both here and in the UK who all agreed that, temporarily at least, I needed to separate them completely and remove some of the stress from my home. It was the right advice. Within days, the mood was noticeably lighter, both dogs settled despite the pack disruption and we stopped walking on eggshells quite so much. Then we stopped walking on eggshells completely and realised, looking back, how bad it had been and for how long.
Freddie, being the younger dog, moved downstairs to the dog hotel full time and immediately started going to work with me every day as my way of giving him time with me; he played with every dog that stayed, went on every meet and greet and eventually took to the work of being a rehab dog like a duck to water. People would ask me how I could put him with other dogs so confidently when he had fought so bitterly with his housemate Nelson, and I would tell them, "He doesn’t hate every dog, he just hates that one." That was four years ago, my son has long since healed almost fully and has blossomed into a fine young man I adore and am mightily proud of. Nelson has calmed and retired ostensibly, and lives out his halcyon days at eleven years of age between our twelve acre field, the meadow and the chesterfield couch, meeting a few dogs here and there but just generally chasing things he can kill and eat.
And Freddie? Freddie’s move downstairs was the best thing I ever did. It gave this highly intelligent, highly intuitive and incredibly spiritual dog a bigger purpose in life; he has aided in the rehabilitation of hundreds and hundreds of dogs and literally saved that many lives. He is the "go to boy" for all our aggression cases, whereby he leads the dogs by example, sometimes with cool indifference, sometimes a show of strength but never aggression, but always it works.
Sometimes God puts what we think are obstacles in our way and we think it’s a trial, when really it’s a doorway, an opportunity for something wonderful -- an opportunity for change. When I go to see this family at the weekend, I won't be going with trepidation or anxiety at their situation. I’ll be going with an open heart, an open mind and a confidence that this is a door opening for them, a way out of the chaos that I’m certain is bubbling away behind the scenes that only the dogs are daring to acknowledge and, if they embrace what’s waiting for them on the other side, their family will be all the better for it. Remember, when change happens, change happens. I’m excited to see where this leads us…..